A comment appeared on the website the other day from someone who seemed driven to utter despair — even to the consideration of suicide — by the current state of our politics. This was disturbing enough, but I was also struck — jarred — by this remark: “Sharing Floyd’s views and values is literally disabling.”
I thought this warranted a more substantial reply than a quick riposte in a comment thread. So below is the original message from the reader, followed by my response. (The post in question, by the way, was “Of Arms and the Man: War-Profiteers and Progressives Make Common Cause for Obama.”)
From “Pinquot”: Is there anything we can do? By which I mean, is there anything I can do?
I try to be noisy about this stuff. I incessantly remind my “progressive” friends what the leader most of them still embrace is doing — and (if they’re still listening) how this is merely the latest manifestation of the fact that our entire civilization is intractably toxic and unconscionable, past and present. I’ve lost friends. I’ve insulted my own family. The ones I keep have mostly learned to tune me out or shrug helplessly — and indeed, what more can they do? I don’t even have the heart to mouth off about this to my own mother (an Obama supporter) anymore — God help me, I do so want her to be happy.
My best friend opined that what’s so obnoxious about me is that everything I say is completely intellectually and philosophically valid — it’s just practically incompatible with any degree of social functionality. I do not disagree.
Of course, I realize doing nothing (assuming the “nothing” is going to involve continuing to live) necessarily amounts to complicity in abuse, oppression and exploitation on a thousand levels. I can’t walk through the grocery store without seeing the systems of corruption and violence at work in my surroundings, and my own inescapable place within them; it is almost too ugly to bear. Sharing Floyd’s views and values is literally disabling.
So, what? What then? Suicide? (The only legitimate question, as I think Descartes put it.) Heavy drinking? That’s pretty much the only personal alternative I have come up with, but I hate the taste and threaten to graduate to heroin any day now (Mom rolls her eyes.) Are capitulation and self-destruction really the only options? What is there for us?
And here is my reply:
You have to remember that politics is a toxin. It will make you sick, taint your mind, poison your soul, blight your life if you let it. One has to deal with politics as a form of waste management, just as you need to have some kind of sewage system in your home or community to prevent disease.
Politics — the machinations of the stunted, damaged souls and third-rate minds who hanker for power — is just a small part of life. It entirely lacks the tragic element; nothing tragic or depthful about politics and power, it’s just brute force, greed, ignorance and spite. So there is no deep meaning to be found in it. No tragedy; no real joy either. Even the greatest moments, the epiphanies — and they do happen in politics on rare occasions, one must admit — will lead very quickly back into the sewage. And that’s OK, that’s the way it is; sewage, waste management — it’s part of life. But it’s not where meaning, joy, tragedy, the salt and savor of existence can be found. So why let the evil done by third-rate goobers drive you to despair of life itself? By hook, crook, lies and murder they’ve already amassed all kinds of power; why give them power over your very soul?
It’s sad to hear that you’ve been driven to the margins of your own life, mocked or marginalized by friends and family because of your political beliefs. I must confess I’ve never tried to press my beliefs on anyone close to me. I don’t have political arguments with them, and I never try to convince anyone of anything. If someone asks me a political question, I’ll answer honestly, and calmly, in an informational way, saying, Here’s a little bit of what I think about that, and here’s why I think it. If I’m with someone who seems vaguely simpatico, I might let a little more passion into it. But I’ve never felt the urge to bring politics into personal relationships. Of course, sometimes it can forced on you, I suppose; maybe your friends and family are in your face about it all the time. In that case, it would be harder to avoid conflict. But even when I find myself in that situation, most of the time I simply think: “Well, if you don’t see it, you don’t see it, and I’m not going to be able to make you see it; not in an argument, anyway.”
Of course, the blog is a help in this regard. Maybe you should try writing one. It can serve as a release valve — and you can make better, more coherent and informed arguments in a blog than in a personal argument. With the blog, I don’t feel I have to push my views verbally on someone; I’ve already set it down, thought it through a bit, it’s out there for anyone to see. I can always say to someone, “Well, I wrote something about this the other day. You can read it if you like.”
One of the main reasons I write the blog now is to give myself this outlet, to have a place — a pipeline — where I can deal with the sewage and the toxins of politics, and get them out and away from the more meaningful aspects of my existence. And as I said, it helps me to work out what I actually do think about these issues. Having to put it down into coherent words, knowing that it must make sense to other people out there, is a tremendous impetus to clarifying thought, I find. It doesn’t matter if only a few people read it; certainly only a few people read this blog, even on its very best days. What matters is that you’ve got it out, you’ve got it down, it’s out there, you can point people to it if they want to see it, and you don’t have to let it leech into the rest of your life and relationships.
I always keep coming back to the words of Italo Calvino, which I’ve used here many times. I found this passage years ago, quoted in an essay by Gore Vidal.I don’t know if it’s any help to you in your situation, but I believe there is genuine wisdom here, especially in a despairing time:
“The inferno…is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
For you see, I disagree with you, and others, who say that “doing nothing” amounts to “complicity in abuse, oppression and exploitation on a thousand levels.” I don’t think that’s true in many respects; certainly not in every respect. There is a genuine, qualitative difference between someone who actually carries out (or commands) atrocities and crimes — and someone who doesn’t. It’s ludicrous to say otherwise. Someone who puts a gun to a child’s head and pulls the trigger is worse than someone who doesn’t put a gun to a child’s head and pull the trigger. Someone who leaps into the toxic swamp of politics in order to obtain power is worse than someone who doesn’t. If more people “did nothing” in this regard, there would be far less suffering in the world. Yes, there are many other things a person can do; and yes, it is part of the tragic element of human existence that no one can completely escape levels of complicity with the evils of the systems they happen to be born into. But simply refraining from active evil can be a first step toward the light. It can also serve as an example to others.
And anyway, to “see the inferno” — to look at reality clearly, to see what is actually being done behind all the political rhetoric and national mythology, to try to glean nuggets of genuine information from a mountain of bullshit — that is not “doing nothing.” That is the only way we can begin to see “what is not inferno,” and begin to help it endure, to carve out space for it.
Are you really going to kill yourself, or nuke your brain with heroin, because you can’t snap your fingers and make everyone see the world the way you see it, if you can’t rag them into changing their minds — or because you can’t magically and instantly change a system that fills up grocery stores with the products of corruption and violence? This kind of feeling — which I understand all too well — is the result of sitting too long in the toxic swamp of politics yourself, of believing that’s all there is to life.
What do you really know of the world, of reality — of literature, history, science, thought, music, art? How deeply aware are you of the million daily interactions of your body and brain with the physical world, with nature, with other human beings? How much of the universe have you yet called into being by becoming conscious of it, by expanding your comprehension? I’ve been trying to do this — oh, in a fitful, pathetic, half-assed way, of course — for almost half a century, and I’ve scarcely brought a grain, a molecule, a photon of the depth and vibrancy of Being into my comprehension. But even the small amount that I’ve been able to dimly discern shows how vastly, incomprehensibly more to life there is than the machinations of power-grubbers.
Perhaps one reason why they thrash about so violently and murderously and ruinously is because that somewhere deep inside they sense how petty and empty and meaningless their power-grubbing is. They are trying to build up their primitive, infantile obsession with shit — with the toxic sludge of power and politics — into some kind of grand design, something of world-historical importance.
But if you give yourself over to the uttermost despair — the longing for self-obliteration — because of their actions, because of their primitive, witless obsession with shit, then what a pointless waste you will make of your own, your only life. You will have thrown away the whole universe — and for what? Because you have allowed your view of life to be circumscribed by the machinations of a bunch of third-rate goobers. You have let them — these sinister, jabbering, blabbering fools — convince you that their crimes and atrocities are all there is to life, that nothing worthwhile exists outside the narrow, blinkered inferno that they have made.
“What is there for us?” you ask. I’ll tell what there is for us: the whole wide universe. And yes, it contains oceans of toxic political shit. And yes, it contains degrees of complicity, compromise, and moral failures for all of us, even the best of us, at every turn. But it contains so much more than this, so much more that we ourselves can bring into being by becoming aware of it. Each individual creates the entire universe — creates all of the universe that he or she will ever know — by what they bring into consciousness, both directly, with active reason, and indirectly, in the deeper, more diffuse and holistic intimations of meaning that an active, questing consciousness can begin to comprehend.
So the choice is yours, really. What would you rather do? Create the universe, accept its tragic dimension and the infinite moments of meaning it can supply — or lie down in a ditch full of toxic shit and slurp the poison until you die? It doesn’t seem like a tough call to me.
Now about this business of “Floyd’s views” being “literally disabling.” As I said, I find this deeply disturbing. It plays into some very profound questions I have long had about the blog myself. Because the blog is, by design, set up to deal almost exclusively with the sewage of politics, I sometime wonder if it is not in danger of becoming too imbued with the very waste it is trying to manage. Is it part of the problem? Does it contribute to the idea — the false, poisonous idea — that politics and the machinations of power-grubbers are of supreme importance? That money, violence and power are the only things that matter? This is certainly not my intention; quite the opposite. But is this the actual message the blog conveys, regardless of my intentions?
And by entering into the political debate — even if your intention is not to push one faction or another but to “inoculate the world with disillusionment,” as Henry Miller put it — do you end up fighting on power’s turf, speaking its language, having the argument defined in its terms? I don’t know. These are questions I now grapple with on a daily basis. I generally end up believing that disillusion is a worthy goal and that waste management of this sort is a necessary task. But I also feel more strongly all the time that there must be a better way to break out of the sinister dynamic of politics, to reach people — to alter consciousnesses — in some more effective, profound manner, rather than simply adding another howl to the echo chamber.
In any case, if my views are “literally disabling,” if utter despair is what my writing induces, then this blog has been an even greater, more egregious failure than I thought. I’ve always believed that disillusionment was bracing, invigorating, liberating, not a cause for suicidal despair. But at the risk of being tedious to regular readers, I’m going to repeat below a passage from the closest thing to a statement of purpose this blog has ever had.
I wrote part of it years ago, at the request of an editor at the St Petersburg Times (the one in Russia, not the Florida paper of the same name), who kept getting letters about my column asking, “Where is Floyd coming from with all his criticism of American policy?” (This was back in the high and palmy days of empire, just weeks after the “Mission Accomplished” moment in Iraq, when seldom was heard a discouraging word about the noble Defenders of Freedom in the White House — and there I was writing about war crimes and war profiteers and torture and rendition and presidential death squads and what all. Most unseemly.)
Later, for the blog, I put this piece together with one I’d written much earlier. You can read the original St Petersburg piece here; the later combination piece can be found here. This is an excerpt from the latter:
….Is it not time to be done with lies at last? Especially the chief lie now running through the world like a plague, putrescent and vile: that we kill each other and hate each other and drive each other into desperation and fear for any other reason but that we are animals, forms of apes, driven by blind impulses to project our dominance, to strut and bellow and hoard the best goods for ourselves. Or else to lash back at the dominant beast in convulsions of humiliated rage. Or else cravenly to serve the dominant ones, to scurry about them like slaves, picking fleas from their fur, in hopes of procuring a few crumbs for ourselves.
That’s the world of power – the “real world,” as its flea-picking slaves and strutting dominants like to call it. It’s the ape-world, driven by hormonal secretions and chemical mechanics, the endless replication of protein reactions, the unsifted agitations of nerve tissue, issuing their ignorant commands. There’s no sense or reason or higher order of thought in it – except for that perversion of consciousness called justification, self-righteousness, which gussies up the breast-beating ape with fine words and grand abstractions.
…Beyond the thunder and spectacle of this ape-roaring world is another state of reality, emerging from the murk of our baser functions. There is power here, too, but not the heavy, blood-sodden bulk of dominance. Instead, it’s a power of radiance, of awareness, connection, breaking through in snaps of heightened perception, moments of encounter and illumination that lift us from the slime.
It takes ten million forms, could be in anything – a rustle of leaves, the tang of salt, a bending blues note, the sweep of shadows on a tin roof, the catch in a voice, the touch of a hand, a line from Sappho or John Clare. Any particular, specific combination of ever-shifting elements, always unrepeatable in its exact effect and always momentary. Because that’s all there is, that’s all we have – the moments.
The moments, and their momentary power – a power without the power of resistance, defenseless, provisional, unarmed, imperfect, bold. The ape-world’s cycle of war and retribution stands as the image of the world of power; what can serve as the emblem of this other reality? A kiss, perhaps: given to a lover, offered to a friend, bestowed on an enemy – or pressed to the brow of a murdered child.
Both worlds are within us, of course, like two quantum states of reality, awaiting our choice to determine which will be actuated, which will define the very nature of being – individually and in the aggregate, moment by moment. This is our constant task, for as long as the universe exists in the electrics of our brains: to redeem each moment or let it fall. Some moments will be won, many more lost; there is no final victory. There is only the task.
So do we counsel fatalism, a dark, defeated surrender, a retreat into bitter, curdled quietude? Not a whit. We advocate action, positive action, unstinting action, doing the only thing that human beings can do, ever: Try this, try that, try something else again; discard those approaches that don’t work, that wreak havoc, that breed death and cruelty; fight against everything that would draw us down again into our own mud; expect no quarter, no lasting comfort, no true security; offer no last word, no eternal truth, but just keep stumbling, falling, careening, backsliding, crawling toward the broken light.
And what is this “broken light”? Nothing more than a metaphor for the patches of understanding – awareness, attention, knowledge, connection – that break through our darkness and stupidity for a moment now and then. A light always fractured, under threat, shifting, found then lost again, always lost. For we are creatures steeped in imperfection, in breakage and mutation, tossed up – very briefly – from the boiling, chaotic crucible of Being, itself a ragged work in progress toward unknown ends, or rather, toward no particular end at all. Why should there be an “answer” in such a reality?
This and this alone is the only “ideology” behind these writings, which try at all times to fight against the compelling but ignorant delusion that any single economic or political or religious system – indeed, any kind of system at all devised by the seething jumble of the human mind – can completely encompass the infinite variegations of existence. What matters is what works – what pulls us from our own darkness as far as possible, for as long as possible. Yet the truth remains that “what works” is always and forever only provisional – what works now, here, might not work there, then. What saves our soul today might make us sick tomorrow.
Thus all we can do is to keep looking, working, trying to clear a little more space for the light, to let it shine on our passions and our confusions, our anger and our hopes, informing and refining them, so that we can see each other better, for a moment – until death shutters all seeing forever.
If anyone is still reading at this point, a further elucidation of these themes can be found here: Immortal Communion: One Lowly Word and the Subversion of Power.